Na­tional Zoo taps into lo­cal grow­ers to keep its pan­das well-fed

The Washington Times Daily - - Metro - BY MERED­ITH SOMERS

Panda candy — that’s what the Na­tional Zoo’s bam­boo pro­cure­ment team told Chris­tian Oster­mann he was grow­ing in his yard. Though more dif­fi­cult to har­vest than the other two kinds of bam­boo grow­ing on the 48-year-old’s Fort Wash­ing­ton prop­erty, the “panda candy” was a valu­able find. True to its nick­name, the bam­boo is use­ful when the zoo’s gi­ant pan­das are sick or act­ing stub­born about their meals.

And in an area where jun­gles of bam­boo are ab­sent, the zoo’s nu­tri­tion team needs all the help it can get keep­ing two of the Dis­trict’s most dis­cern­ing palates well fed.

“The bam­boo never stops,” se­nior an­i­mal nu­tri­tion­ist Michael Maslanka said.

The Na­tional Zoo’s gi­ant pan­das Tian Tian and Mei Xiang com­bined eat as much as 150 pounds of bam­boo ev­ery day, and the amount re­quired will only grow as Mei Xiang’s fe­male cub gets older and is weened off milk. The cub is set to cel­e­brate her 100-day-old birth­day Sun­day, the tra­di­tional mile­stone for panda names to be an­nounced.

To meet that daily quota of bam­boo, a team of 10 nutri­tion­ists shares the re­spon­si­bil­ity of har­vest­ing bam­boo from one of the zoo’s roughly 15 sites around the D.C. area.

Mr. Maslanka, 42, said the sites run the gamut for lo­ca­tion and the length of time the zoo has been har­vest­ing there, but they all have a few things in com­mon.

“We typ­i­cally source from sites that are more than one acre,” he said. “We want to make sure we can go back and har­vest. Ide­ally we want a life­long re­la­tion­ship.”

De­spite the mas­sive quan­ti­ties of bam­boo the zoo’s pan­das re­quire, the sup­ply can be quickly re­plen­ished thanks to the plant’s rapid growth rate

up to 2 feet per day, ac­cord­ing to zoo of­fi­cials.

The Na­tional Zoo’s bam­boo pro­cure­ment team ro­tates its site vis­its to avoid over­har­vest­ing and also re­lies on an off-site fa­cil­ity in Front Royal, Va., that boasts “acres and acres” of bam­boo, Mr. Maslanka said.

Some sites are in pri­vate yards like Mr. Oster­mann’s prop­erty, while another is along the Po­tomac River. Bam­boo grows near one of the bridges lead­ing into the Dis­trict, while other sites are in Poolesville and Mitchel­lville. The zoo it­self has 53 va­ri­eties of bam­boo grow­ing on the prop­erty that can be har­vested when weather pre­vents the crew from trav­el­ing, but not just any bam­boo is suit­able for the an­i­mals. Po­ten­tial har­vest­ing sites are tested for tox­ins and con­tam­i­nants.

“It’s sim­i­lar to work­ing with in­su­la­tion,” said Eric Smith, an­i­mal keeper and bam­boo pro­cure­ment team mem­ber. “The leaves, fibers it’s itchy. The stalks them­selves, they’re re­ally dense. It’s phys­i­cally tax­ing. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing stuff, though.”

Mr. Smith, 33, said the team uses lop­pers, or branch cut­ters, to cut down the bam­boo. Hand tools are pre­ferred over power tools, but if the crews do use a chain saw to cut the plant, the lop­pers are then used to trim the ends to avoid con­tam­i­nat­ing the plant.

The pro­cure­ment team makes three or four trips per week, de­pend­ing on the weather as well as the time of year.

Mr. Maslanka ex­plained that, de­pend­ing on the sea­son, gi­ant pan­das will switch from eat­ing the leaves of the bam­boo to the ac­tual bam­boo stalk. It takes more har­vest­ing to get 100 pounds of leaves than it does 100 pounds of thick bam­boo stalk.

“It’s like ice­berg let­tuce,” Mr. Maslanka said of the bam­boo. “It has caloric value, it has nutritional value.”

But bam­boo tends to be dif­fi­cult to digest, Mr. Maslanka said, which is why the pan­das must eat so much of it.

When the crew re­turns to the zoo, the bam­boo is put in a park­ing bay out­fit­ted with wa­ter mis­ters, sim­i­lar to the sprays in the pro­duce sec­tion of gro­cery

stores. The bam­boo doesn’t stay fresh for long, but the mois­ture helps keep it green un­til it is de­liv­ered to hun­gry mouths.

As the sun rises each morn­ing, trucks loaded with the day’s meals for the 2,000 an­i­mals make their way through the zoo, stop­ping at the doors of each ex­hibit to drop off crates of fruits, veg­eta­bles, raw meat, frozen mice and rab­bits — and the bam­boo. It costs about $1.2 mil­lion each year to feed all the an­i­mals.

Mr. Maslanka’s crew han­dles all the di­ets or meals for the an­i­mals in the park, though they get help from vol­un­teers — and, in the case of bam­boo, prop­erty own­ers like Mr. Oster­mann.

Mr. Oster­mann, 48, and his wife, Lisa, bought their home ear­lier this year. Dur­ing the buy­ing process, they learned that the owner worked with the zoo on the bam­boo har­vest site.

The owner’s fa­ther had been an Army physi­cian based in Asia, and when he re­turned brought home bam­boo seeds, Mr. Oster­mann said.

“There’s now a rather large bam­boo crop,” he said. “We have 14 acres of prop­erty. A good bit of it is woods and a good bit of that is bam­boo.”

Af­ter buy­ing the home, Mr. Oster­mann wrote to the zoo and ex­pressed his in­ter­est in keep­ing up the bam­boo har­vest.

“I im­me­di­ately had a mes­sage from Mike and the next day a per­sonal email from the Na­tional Zoo say­ing they would love to con­tinue the co­op­er­a­tion.”

Though the zoo had done a large har­vest prior to Mr. Oster­mann’s move, the pro­cure­ment crew did come out to give the cou­ple an idea what hap­pens dur­ing a har­vest.

Mr. Oster­mann said the crew would likely be back next year when the bam­boo has re­grown. In the mean­time, he said, he would be fol­low­ing the gi­ant panda up­dates know­ing his con­tri­bu­tion makes a dif­fer­ence to the zoo’s nu­tri­tion team.

“We were of course ex­tremely ex­cited about this con­nec­tion,” Mr. Oster­mann said. “It’s won­der­ful for us to con­trib­ute in this way to the Na­tional Zoo gi­ant panda pro­gram. When we see the pan­das, see re­ports on the zoo, you have a much closer, di­rect con­nec­tion.”

An­i­mal keeper Heather Bas­ket pre­pares a salad for the Na­tional Zoo’s great apes. Trucks loaded with a day’s meals stop at the doors of each ex­hibit to drop off crates of fruits, veg­eta­bles, raw meat, frozen mice and rab­bits — and bam­boo for the pan­das.

An­i­mal keep­ers Bernard Gra­ham, Eric Smith and Brian Can­non un­load bam­boo at the Na­tional Zoo com­mis­sary, whose staff stores, pre­pares and de­liv­ers food for the zoo’s 2,000 an­i­mals. It costs about $1.2 mil­lion a year to feed all the an­i­mals.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mei Xiang, cur­rently car­ing for her young cub, feasts on bam­boo in the Panda House. The Na­tional Zoo’s gi­ant pan­das Tian Tian and Mei Xiang com­bined eat as much as 150 pounds of bam­boo ev­ery day, and the amount will only grow as Mei Xiang’s fe­male cub gets older and is weaned off milk.

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